On Nov. 27, director Irvin Kershner, who began his artistic life as a student of composition, viola and violin at the Queen Village-based Settlement Music School, 416 Queen St., died of lung cancer in Los Angeles. A 1941 graduate of Lower Moyamensing’s South Philadelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St., the former Whitman resident achieved notoriety for directing ’80’s “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back,” one of 15 films he presided over between ’58 and ’80.
Born Isadore Kershner Apr. 29, ’23, he began lessons at Settlement — the country’s largest community school of the arts — at 10. His early days there brought an encounter with the legendary scientist Albert Einstein, one of the school’s board members. Sweating and shaking, he performed a recital for Einstein.
“He was the most famous man in the world, and I played for him,” Mr. Kershner noted in a 2006 phone interview with Settlement’s staff. “Afterward, he told me how good I was, which wasn’t true!”
The interview came as a preliminary part of his induction that same year into the Settlement 100, a group of notable figures who took lessons at the school or contributed to its community reputation. The group includes Kevin Bacon, Chubby Checker, Mario Lanza and Frank Rizzo, Sr.
“Mr. Kershner said his musical training served as a powerful component of his artistic life,” Robert Capanna, the school’s former executive director, said.
Mr. Kershner expanded his musical acumen in high school and dreamed of becoming a composer. The United States’ involvement in World War II led him to join the Army Air Corps, for which he worked on B-24 bombers. Returning to Philadelphia, he changed his name to Irvin.
He abandoned his musical aspirations upon entering Temple University’s Tyler School of Fine Arts, where he studied painting. In ’48, he moved to Los Angeles to study art and design at UCLA. Film studies at the School of Film at the University of Southern California next occupied him, as did a stint as a photography instructor.
The State Department hired him as a still photographer during his USC stay, a position that took him to Iran. Documentary work there in the Islamic republic, Greece and Turkey soon followed.
Mr. Kershner made his directorial debut in ’58’s “Stakeout on Dope Street,” for which he wrote the screenplay. He balanced cinema and television endeavors over the next three decades, directing such luminaries as Sean Connery, Faye Dunaway, Richard Harris, Tommy Lee Jones, John Lithgow, George C. Scott, Barbra Streisand and Joanne Woodward. In addition to his films, he directed episodes for seven television series and two made-for-TV movies.
People know him most, however, for a film that he almost ended up not overseeing. George Lucas, a former student of Mr. Kershner at USC, sought the director, the son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, to manage the second installment of his first trilogy. Mr. Kershner turned down the initial offer but agreed to helm the film that, with adjustments for ticket price inflation, ranks as the 12th highest domestic grossing movie, according to boxofficemojo.com.
Mr. Kershner’s 13th film, “Empire” made use of his penchant for close-ups, including the riveting scene in which the evil lord Darth Vader reveals hero Luke Skywalker’s paternity. In ’83, 17 years after their collaboration in “A Fine Madness,” Mr. Kershner teamed with Sean Connery in “Never Say Never Again,” the latter’s seventh turn as secret agent James Bond. He ended his cinematic career with “RoboCop 2” in ’90.
“Film is like a virus. There’s no way to get rid of it; there’s no antibiotic,” Mr. Kershner said of his craft in the Settlement phone interview.
At the 2006 ceremony, he joined the first set of honorees in conjunction with a three-year celebration of the school’s 100 years of community offerings.
“He had a sparkling personality and a great sense of humor,” Capanna, a Newbold resident, said. “His work had a tremendous sense of time, shape and form.”
Last June, The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films gave Mr. Kershner a lifetime achievement award. Before his passing, he had struggled with lung cancer for three-and-a-half years but remained active.
According to his son David, he was constructing a documentary on writer Ray Bradbury and was working on “Djinn,” a musical about the friendship between a Jewish immigrant and an Arab sheik in Palestine prior to its becoming Israel.
“My dad never really retired. He had a powerful drive to create, whether it be through film, photography or writing,” David Kershner said.
At Mr. Kershner’s request, his family did not hold a funeral. Donations in his memory can go to The Settlement Music School, P.O. Box 63966, Philadelphia , PA 19147 or The San Juan Preservation Trust, P.O. Box 327, Lopez, WA 98261. SPR
Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at email@example.com or ext. 124.